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Much-drilled bill signals climate endgame

Richard Black | 22:56 UK time, Wednesday, 12 May 2010

And then there were two...

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham having departed the group, it was left to Democrat John Kerry and Independent (Democrat-attached) Joe Lieberman to unveil the latest version of the US climate bill, which now sports the distinctly Stars-and-Stripes title of the American Power Act.

Joe_Lieberman_and_John_KerrySince its last incarnation, the bill has clearly gained a few clauses and lost a bit more than Mr Graham's name on its title-page.

The entire bill [pdf link] weighs in at 987 pages; and no, I haven't yet read them all, so what follows is of necessity a quick and incomplete skim.

I'd be delighted if any of you want to pull out any details and dissect them.

So we have the continuation of the cap-and-trade principle, but a more gradual phase-in than was previously the case. Industry would not have to come on board until 2016.

That's one of the industry sops; another is the extension of support for new nuclear power stations.

Consumers - voters - heck, ordinary people - gain assurances that revenues raised through the proposed new law will largely go on reducing fuel bills.

Although this features very prominently on Senator Kerry's crib-sheet [pdf link], I must admit to being somewhat in the dark about how it's supposed to work, so if anyone has the full picture, perhaps you could post.

One ingredient that should please authors of the Hartwell Paper, the alternative climate policy vision that we featured earlier in the week, is a section aiming to curb short-lived warming agents such as black carbon, HFCs and methane.

And if there is no global climate deal, countries that would be able to out-compete the US as a result of extra costs imposed by the bill would eventually have tariffs imposed on exports to the US.

Some of you may find more than one irony in this clause - I'll leave it to you to point out what they might be.

But what's making headlines are the proposals - trailed well before the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster - to encourage oil and gas drilling off US coasts, including the sharing of revenues with coastal states.

Since those proposals were trailed, senior political figures in several states including California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have said they don't want it - they'd rather raise revenue by some other means than risk the ecological and economic damage now being visited upon the Gulf coast.

Oil_in_Gulf_of_MexicoSo the new bill contains even newer measures that would allow states to block drilling within 75 miles of their shores.

You may be asking a question at this point: does the bill see US oil production as a boon or a millstone?

The answer must be a bit of both, depending on whose support it is chasing.

The drilling-or-not-drilling aspect is really a microcosm of the subtle shape-shifting the bill has had to go through to reach this stage, squeezed as it has been by resurgent climate scepticism, the loss of the Democrat super-majority, and now by BP's misadventure.

Andy Revkin in the New York Times describes what emerges as "a classic piece of American legislative compromise, with multi-billion-dollar incentives and investments and favours".

All the give and take creates three potential problems.

Firstly, the sops you give to one faction may antagonise another. Secondly, the package may become simply too unwieldy to suit anyone; and thirdly, it may lose sight of its core intent, which - at least according to the pre-election rhetoric from Mr Obama and Mr Kerry - was curbing US greenhouse gas emissions.

So is passing it politically feasible? And if it does pass, would it affect emissions as much as President Obama promised it would during his election campaign, or as much as mainstream climate science concludes is necessary?

Senator Graham has indicated support. But other Republicans who might have given their support are coming under increasing pressure from their party's right, and there are those on the left who now protest that the bill doesn't go far enough.

Clearly, the bill has been too much of a behemoth for many analysts to get their heads around immediately.

Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) gives it a cautious welcome, though emphasising that there's a lot of detailed reading to be done.

But she's already read enough to conclude:

"The bill's core carbon pollution limits are solid. These emission limits get tighter every year and will drive investments in clean energy that create jobs, cut pollution, and end our addiction to oil from dangerous locations, both offshore and overseas."

However, the Center for Biological Diversity begs to differ. The bill, they conclude...

"...will not solve the problems of global warming and continues pandering to the fossil fuel industry - including expanded offshore oil drilling - that created the problems in the first place."

However the political numbers game plays out, and whatever the bill might or might not do for emissions, one thing appears certain - we are now in the endgame of this issue.

Its outcome will be of vital importance not only for the US, but for the world in general.

US legislation - however battered about by pork-barrel winds - would breathe new life into global climate negotiations. Abandonment would take most of the air that remains out of its lungs.

Either way, it's that important.


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